The four sisters are the surviving offspring of the Rev. S.L. Davis and Willie Davis.
The high-spirited Davis sisters remember ‘East Austin’s pastor’
More than 100 years ago, the future Rev. Silas Leonard “S.L.” Davis worked as a farm laborer southeast of Austin. One day, this son of former slaves announced that he could not work on Sundays.
“God’s calling me,” S.L. told his boss. “I have to go to church.”
So the boss fired him when he did not show up.
“Then he rehired him each time,” says his daughter Vessie Davis Tutt, 92, with a smile, “until he gave up.”
Good thing, too. Her father went on to study at Guadalupe College, a Baptist school founded for African-Americans in Seguin in 1884, and was ordained as a minister in 1927. After a time in San Antonio, S.L. moved his family to East Austin, where, in 1937, he oversaw the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
On Oct. 23, 1939, he led several families from David Chapel to found Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Avenue. He served as Mt. Calvary’s pastor for 49 years and became one of the most respected leaders in Austin, a stern taskmaster at home and in public, but one with an intimate, absolute knowledge of the Bible.
He died March 30, 1988, 11 days after his 100th birthday. For many, he was “East Austin’s Pastor.”
Four sisters remember
Mt. Calvary, these days led by S.L.’s grandson the Rev. L.K. Jones, is a brick structure with a simple, central white steeple, located at what is now 2111 S.L. Davis Ave.
S.L. and his wife, Willie (alternately Willia) Cora Thompson Davis, were both born in the St. John (alternately John’s) Colony near Dale in Caldwell County. They reared 11 children.
By one count, they had more than 100 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren.
On a windy day, their four surviving children — along with Vessie, there are Scottie Lee Davis Ivory, 88, Teresia Davis Lewis, 85, and Barbara Davis Dotson, 80 — gathered in a room at Vessie’s farmhouse in Cedar Creek, just over the low green hills from the St. John Colony. Vessie has turned the front parlor into a sort of shrine to her father, with crisp photographs, enlarged newspaper and magazine articles, musical scores, immaculate memorabilia — including S.L.’s ticket to the 1936 Texas Centennial in Dallas, which Vessie found in a trunk — and samples of S.L.’s elegant handwriting.
The sisters’ memories are thickly layered, and not always pleasant. In the face of everything, however, the preacher’s high-spirited offspring stuck together. They even kept a sacred pact during their youth not to snitch on one another.
“When one got a whippin’, all of us got a whippin’,” Teresia laughed. “Father would ask, ‘Who did this?’ We wouldn’t tell. We were loyal. True to each other. He then went down the line. We’d be yelling and yelling. When he left, we’d break out laughing.”
The closeness among the sisters has not waned.
“Don’t try to buddy with the Davis girls,” the word went out in their East Austin neighborhood, Vessie recalls from their days living on East 14th Street as well as East 12th Street. “They are friends of their own. They don’t need anymore.”
In Vessie’s front parlor, an early picture of S.L. Davis hangs in a brown frame. A burly young man, he is dressed in his Sunday best — tight-fitting suit, thin tie, striped socks, blocky shoes. His big hands are clasped together as if in prayer, or at least in firm resolution.
His eyes focus directly on the camera. Clearly, S.L. was a man of his own mind.
“He was one of the greatest doctrinal teachers of his day,” the Rev. Raphael Smith of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church said at the time of Davis’ death. “He had the charisma, but his forte was that he was one of the few preachers who was rooted and grounded in the doctrine of the faith. You have a lot of present-day ministers who are trying to swoon and sway you with platitudes, but he stayed strictly as a biblical teacher.”
“I don’t care if you were black or white or whatever race you belong to, they called him up to ask, ‘What about this thing in the Bible?’” Vessie says. “He’d know.”
In 1950, the Rev. Davis supervised construction, by two of his sons, of the church’s current brick building.
“He also was known as the ‘12th Street Pastor,’” said Scottie Lee, referring to the string of bars, clubs, eateries and other black-owned businesses along that East Austin thoroughfare. “He’d walk into any of those joints, and they respected him. If you had a bottle, you better put it on the floor. Clipper was his horse, a chestnut with a diamond on its forehead. I’d go to the clubs and see him from a distance on the horse. You should see me ducking. He never saw me. Or he saw me and he didn’t recognize me.”
But the pastor’s power reached far beyond the back pews of his church or the clubs on 12th Street. Texas District Judge Ralph Yarborough tried misdemeanor cases in the Rev. Davis’ home, at times designating S.L. an unofficial parole officer.
“The judge knew he could hold those people morally responsible for their conduct,” S.L.’s late son Floyd Davis told this newspaper on his father’s death.
When the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a statewide holiday, S.L. performed the invocation at the Capitol ceremony.
“When he went down the street, each man would tip his hat. ‘Rev. Davis,’ they all said,” Vessie recalls. “They’d also say, ‘I want him to do my service!’ When he died, you’d see cars, cars, cars lined up like he was the president of the United States.”
During his later years, S.L. never lost faith in turning 100.
His daughter Scottie Lee: “When he got to be 98 years old, he said, ‘I’m 98, and I’m glad to be here, but I’m not going to ask the Lord to be 100; I’m just going to trust that he’ll let me get to 100 years old, and I’ll be satisfied.’”
That same parlor portrait from the early 20th century shows Willie Davis wearing a light unstructured dress, lighter stockings and low, sensible shoes. Her hair is pulled back around her strikingly oval features.
Unlike S.L., she looks into the distance beyond the camera as if greatly fatigued, or at least resolute in her determination to avoid eye contact with the lens. A toddler sits in her lap and nuzzles against her breast.
That toddler grew up to be the mother of longtime Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis.
Like her husband, Willie clearly was a person of her own mind.
Yet her duties were split between her husband and her children — including a son who grew up to be among the first black fire captains in Texas — and their children.
“Mom was like a mother hen,” Scottie Lee says. “She was going to take care of her children and not let anybody mistreat her children.”
At the same time, Willie catered to S.L.’s every need.
“She was the kind of wife who ironed his underwear.” Teresia says. “She’d pack his suitcase a month ahead of any trip.”
“Dad used to preach in the morning,” Vessie says. “After the morning service, she’d wash his clothes, hang them up for the wind to dry, and iron that suit so he could preach that night.”
Willie seems to have been the nurturer in the family, not the disciplinarian. That task she delegated to S.L.
“My mother was always great,” Teresia says. “But we had to walk the chalk line or she’d say, ‘I’ll tell your Daddy on you.’”
The family scraped by on little money, and it was Willie’s job to make it work. She constructed the children’s clothes from flour sacks. She could make a fine meal out of neck bones and potatoes and always kept a garden out for the greens that accompanied almost every meal.
“She could feed us off $1.50,” Barbara says. “Or $2 for dinner. And that’s with 17 of us at home, including grandchildren.”
Married in 1916, the Davises were married for 72 years, much of that time living in East Austin. Willie died at age 98 on April 12, 1996.
Vessie, whose grandparents were the former slaves Andrew and Laura Davis, was born in rural St. John Colony in 1926.
St. John was established in the 1870s by the Rev. John Henry Winn, whose flock migrated on foot and by wagon from the areas around Hog Eye and Webberville in eastern Travis County. For decades, children there attended a country school supported by the church community. The kids were integrated into the Lockhart system in 1966.
“My grandmother was a midwife,” Vessie says. “I was the last child she delivered before she passed.” Vessie hangs a fragile apron that was worn by Laura Davis, the freed slave, in her front parlor as a cherished reminder.
Vessie was Willie and S.L.’s fifth child — “of those that lived.”
She remembers being a good kid, at least while people were watching.
“We learned it from the table,” Vessie says. “Our father controlled us. We had to be home, for instance, by a certain time. Even when we were grown women.”
In fact, Vessie’s father grounded her for eating at a restaurant with some female friends while her husband was serving in Vietnam. He thought it was unseemly. At the time, she was about to become a grandmother.
Unlike her parents, Vessie married four times.
“You have a husband who fights you, or courts on you, you say goodbye,” she says emphatically. “I’m too independent for that.”
That independence was not always encouraged by the family. When Vessie felt sorry for herself, for instance, when her husband served overseas in the military, her parents’ response was, “Go home and pray for him.”
Vessie had five children. Two died. One, Patricia Darlene Wright, born in Tripoli, Libya, while her father served there, was murdered in Austin on Jan. 21, 1979.
Not unusual for an African-American woman of the time, she worked for a while as a maid in a white household. The man of the house was disabled.
“The boss tried to feed me what her husband spit out,” Vessie says. “I walked out.”
Instead, she attended the Madam C.J. Walker School of Cosmetology in Dallas.
“I was the first black beautician to work in the Edwards Air Force Base beauty shop,” Vessie says. “I came back here in 1972. My husband then was in the military. I started teaching food and nutrition for Texas Agricultural Extension and retired in 1988.”
Her current husband, soft-spoken Ezelle Tutt, 86, is a church worker.
“The others weren’t church workers,” Vessie clarifies. “They were fighting, drinking, acting a fool.”
In 1985, the Tutts moved out to a gray house on a hill in Cedar Creek near her birthplace. They are members of nearby St. John Baptist Church, headed by the Rev. H.L. Carter.
“We have a cohesive community here,” Vessie says. “On Juneteenth, 300 to 500 people come back. We have programs and talk about our history. We want the people to remember where we came from and why we are here. We are trying to fix up the old school now. We love its historical status, like a museum that brings all things back to life.”
The second-eldest surviving daughter is Scottie Lee — Davis child No. 7. Born in Seguin while her father was in college, she can remember family life before East Austin. The early years here were spent in a one-story board-and-batten house at 1507 E. 14th St.
“I still have the contract of sale,” Vessie says. “My father paid $1,300 for it on Nov. 6, 1939.”
“We had a lotta fun,” Scottie Lee says. “We had cows. Had chickens. Had hogs. Even in Austin, we had cows before they changed the ordinance. We grazed them off East 14th Street on Comal at Oakwood Cemetery.”
Like many of her siblings, Scottie Lee attended Campbell Elementary, Kealing Junior High and Anderson Senior High School. Some of the Davis children also went to the Olive Street School, which had served several functions for the East Austin community for decades, including an early home for segregated Anderson.
The Davis family was poor, but the kids didn’t really notice it.
“We didn’t have store toys,” Scottie Lee says. “We made them. We used the rope from the ice box to make hair for a dog. For Christmas, it was a piece of candy, an orange, a cane. We were so happy, we didn’t know what to do. We made a swing out of tire and put the rope up on the garage. For dinner, we’d take a possum and put it in the ashes
Teresia Lewis, 85, from left, Barbara Dotson, 80, Vessie Tutt, 92, and Scottie Ivory, 88, sit beneath a portrait of their father, the Rev. S.L. Davis.
This photograph of the Rev. S.L. Davis conducting a baptism in the Colorado River was featured in a 1938 Life magazine article.
A memorial to the Rev. S.L. Davis is on display at the home of his daughter Vessie Tutt.
A photograph, featured in a 1938 edition of LIFE magazine, depicting the Rev. S.L. Davis conducting a baptism, is seen at the home of his daughter Vessie Tutt on June 11 in Cedar Creek.
This early-20th-century photograph provides insight into the Rev. S.L. Davis and his wife, Willie Davis.